Social (Media) Distancing

Between the headline and the Share button.

Access to credible, useful information could not be more essential than it is in the present moment. But as we are all presumably more attentive than ever to our social media feeds, we are correspondingly bombarded with more garbage content. This crisis is a perfect opportunity for trolls to ply their trade. Whether it’s idiots having a laugh, professional mischief-makers working for foreign agencies, or any number of vested interests, there is no shortage of intentionally misleading material online. But that may not be the greatest concern.

Unfortunately, the expansion of the news market—from the earliest days of cable TV to the breadth of Facebook’s role as a virtual newsstand—has forced even venerable sources to take a more slapdash approach to their reporting. In order to remain relevant (i.e. extant), organizations with distinguished pedigrees are chronically guilty of publishing stories designed to grab, terrify, and outrage more than they are to inform or promote thoughtful dialogue. Almost worse than that, even if the reportage is soundly crafted, the headlines are too often screaming at us because they are designed to promote (mostly negative) social media interaction. And far too many of us are guilty of reacting to and/or sharing only the headlines, where the distinctions between accurate and inflammatory can be rather subtle.

For instance, while acknowledging that we are justified in distrusting Attorney General William Barr on the grounds that he shows little respect for constitutional principles, let’s compare two headlines in which the Rolling Stone follows up on a story first reported by Politico

Politico: DOJ seeks new emergency powers amid coronavirus pandemic. 

Rolling Stone: DOJ Wants to Suspend Constitutional Rights During Coronavirus Emergency

To be clear, the actual story is cause for concern, or at least awareness. Assuming the central reports are accurate, the DOJ apparently wants Congress to draft new legislation that would empower courts to detain arrested individuals indefinitely while the courts are shut down or delayed during this crisis. The problem is that this infringes rights protected by the Sixth Amendment, and, as mentioned, one can be forgiven for assuming that AG Barr might not give a damn. Both Rolling Stone and Politico do acknowledge that legislation of this nature is unlikely to find any purchase in the current House of Representatives, but it is not the story itself that prompted me to write this post.

I wanted to call attention to the psychological effect of the Rolling Stone headline. With a constant awareness that we have a president who is ignorant about the Constitution and an AG who has shown contempt for the Constitution, that headline almost immediately provokes dystopian mental montages. Before one even chooses which emoji to click, one cannot help but conjure images of smashed presses and jackbooted thugs suppressing speech as Barr takes an Orwellian Sharpie to pesky items like the establishment clause. The whole proto-fascist narrative plays out in the time it takes to share the headline with a comment like, “This is what these guys have wanted all along.” But who reads the story?

Ascribing authoritarian motives to this administration is at least half true, which is one reason why sensational headlines can be so dangerous—because we need to know who is trying to cross which lines and why. We are at a very precarious moment in history—not only because we are deeply concerned for our safety, but because American institutions have been under assault since long before we collided with the vector of Covid-19—and long before Trump and his acolytes brought their own sledgehammers to the party. 

As with the harm to journalism, the abandonment of institutions and the devaluation of expertise is a dire consequence of “democratizing” information through digital platforms. We exacerbate the problem by sharing fragments and impressions that feed anxieties that—perhaps because they are plausible—are the concerns most in need of informed skepticism. 

Now that most of us have segregated in an effort to mitigate the spread of a literal virus, those of us fortunate enough to have the time and ability to keep up with the feeds, might also do what we can to mitigate the spread of viral misinformation. To that end, it would probably help to put some distance (i.e. time) between encountering a headline and clicking Share. There is no urgency to respond to a story or to share it immediately. That urgency is an illusion fostered by the medium itself, and our responses to the stimuli principally serves the platform company’s interest in data-harvesting. 

If Facebook users, for instance, committed to not sharing anything until they’ve read it, this might help slow the rate of misinformation. Better yet, before sharing, why not take a moment to provide friends with a summary of what the story actually says, or fails to say? Doing this would emphasize how often stories are out of synch with their headlines. In a time when we have plenty of reasons to be worried and plenty of reasons to be angry, it is especially important that we worry about, and are angry about, things that are actually true. 

This seems like a very good time to step outside the whirlwind of what scholar Alice Marwick calls our deep stories and apply some critical thinking, even if this means taking a moment to look for counterfactuals in a story about some party or entity who deserves some measure (or a whole truckload) of our scorn. There has never been a time when accurate information matters more than it does right now. Social media, in many ways not always visible, is designed to frustrate that need. If we have the time, and take the time, to provide badly needed context for one another, a social platform can be a wonderful source of useful information; but absent that context, the deluge of images and headlines alone can be a steady flow of gasoline on an already smoldering fire. 

Also see:  Reducing the Spread of Misinformation Online from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. 


Virus art by: Kateryna_Kon

© 2020, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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